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Matt STARLING (b. 1979)
Music for Nina (2014/2020)
Matt Starling (recording)
rec. details not relevant.

Matt Starling has appeared on these pages as a member of the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble recording Philip Glass (review), and with solo projects such as his arrangement and recording of Terry Riley’s Dorian Reeds (review). This is the first time I’ve encountered both him as a composer, and the ‘music for relaxation, meditation and healing’ label Heart Dance Records. The press release for this title adds contemporary classical, minimalism and impressionism as well as ambient music for his stylistic range, so we can hope to hear more from Matt Starling at some time in the future.

Matt Starling’s own introduction to this piece is a good place to start: “This music was inspired by new love. It was intoxicating and incredible. One night we were listening to music together and she asked me to try to create music that expressed what we were experiencing together. Soon she fell asleep. I stayed up all night after I pushed the record button. I worked with loops. I had been fervently listening to music by Brian Eno and Terry Riley at the time and I was captivated by the tape loop techniques they developed and deployed. As I worked, I was endeavoring to infuse simplicity, beauty, and blissfulness into the sound I was creating and meditating on.”

This single span exists in more than one version, with the record label’s website adding an 8-hour ‘sleep edition’ and a 55-minute ‘meditation edition’. Aside from duration I haven’t heard what differences there are to the present version, but the nature of this music certainly lends itself to these uses. Having seen that these variants exist bring to mind Max Richter’s Sleep (review), but there are big differences here. Richter’s music is through composed and performed, and the sound palette is dulled to give it a somnolent feel. With Starling’s Music for Nina there is no dampening of the upper harmonics in the sound, so it is quite colourful by comparison. The other difference is the loop based material used, which creates innumerable possibilities, the version on this CD representing “only one possible example of how this process might play out.” Starling has described the piece as “a generative composition which plays out in a unique sequence of musical events each time it's played inside of its original computer environment”, which sounds like a science experiment, but the results are delicious.

This is an immersive soundworld: slow moving, with clever layering of different, complimentary but also subtly contrasting ‘instruments’ for each loop to create an entire orchestration. There are easily identified musical characters such as you might find on most electronic keyboards, including the main ostinato that runs through much of the piece. The textures and perspectives shift, with some sounds loops emerging from distances both far and middle, others up close, and all bathed in gorgeous swathes of resonance. I expect there will be samples of this you can find online but, looking for comparisons by way of reference there’s Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon for duration, elements of Laraaji’s Day of Radiance or his Essence/Universe, and perhaps some of the atmosphere of that Harold Budd/Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois classic album The Pearl though I may be stretching the point here. Starling’s loops are more tightly integrated than Brian Eno’s on Music for Airports, but their presence means we always stay in one tonal area. In any case, even with all of these ancestors in ambience, his sound is unique and personal.

This is genuine ambient music, and you have to suspend any expectations you might have in terms of musical form in the conventional ‘classical’ sense though there is more cadence, variation and development going on than you might imagine, certainly if you play right through to the end. This is something to put on your headphones or speakers and just let yourself fall into its world, but it is more than merely hypnotic. As with all good music, the more you pay attention the more you will get out of it, and in this regard it is a ‘wide awake’ ambience - restful and soothing, but detailed and carefully considered. “‘It’s my sincere hope,’ Matt says, ‘that this music might ease anxiety, aid in sleep, promote meditation and generally offer support to those who are seeking inner peace.’” Bear in mind its inspiration and engage your emotions if you can, to feel this piece like a warm, celestial, eternal embrace. Would that we could all feel this amount of love.

Dominy Clements

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